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National panel recognizes Kearney Public Schools' efforts to fight childhood obesity
By Julie Anderson / World-Herald staff writer
July 10, 2013
Kearney and its public school district were recognized Tuesday as one of the nation’s “bright spots” in its efforts to reduce rates of childhood obesity.

Report after report in recent years has raised concerns about the nation's growing rates of childhood obesity, warning that today's youngsters are on a path to be less healthy and die younger than their parents if changes aren't made.

On Tuesday, a national panel discussion in Washington, D.C., focused on the strides that Kearney and 10 other states, cities and regions have made toward turning the tide.

The Kearney Public Schools, working with the University of Nebraska at Kearney and others in the community, made changes aimed at making more healthful foods available to students and families and increasing activity in and out of schools.

From 2006 to 2011, the obesity rate among students in kindergarten through fifth grade decreased by 13.4 percent, said Carol Renner, the district's associate superintendent. That climbs to a 22 percent reduction when information up to 2013, not included in the district's original report, is factored in.

During the conference, Renner described some of the steps that the district and the community have taken:

»   Started running and walking clubs before and after school.

»   Built in 10-minute activity breaks during the school day.

»   Revamped the physical education curriculum to focus on activity rather than competitive sports.

»   Provided more structured activities to get kids moving during recess and during open gym time over the lunch period at the high school.

»  Replaced treats with extra recess as classroom rewards.

The conference was held by Voices for Healthy Children, a joint initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the American Heart Association. Both organizations have been heavily involved in tracking and addressing childhood obesity.

James Marks, senior vice president and director of the foundation’s health group, said the two most recent reports from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that childhood obesity rates have leveled off nationally. But the trend hasn’t been the same for every age or racial group. Some communities are still seeing increases.

The fact that Kearney and other communities are documenting decreases “is encouraging for the nation and certainly for those communities,” he said.

Their results back up a point the Institute of Medicine made a year ago. “If a community makes the change,” Marks said, “they can be confident that their community will get healthier.”

The successful programs also made it clear that addressing the problem takes broad action and ongoing effort.

“A community like Kearney that has made the changes and is starting to see the progress can’t let up,” he said. “The progress we have is early and it’s fragile, and there are still a lot of forces that can reverse that progress.”

Renner said Kearney’s efforts began in 2006, when it began working on a wellness policy in response to a national mandate.

That year, Renner said, the school district began collecting body mass index data on students in kindergarten through eighth grade and sending report cards to elementary school parents.

Wellness coordinator Cari Franzen and Kate Heelan, the UNK exercise science professor who led the data collection effort, took the numbers to individual schools and began working with them on solutions.

Heelan said the data also have allowed the district to measure its progress in a way that other school districts in Nebraska have not done.

Other initiatives have gone well beyond school walls.

The district sent home letters offering nutrition tips, and UNK sponsored a workshop for parents about creating healthy habits. The district and the university now partner to put on a family fun run. A local greenhouse worked to create container gardens for the district to sell as a fundraiser. And local health care organizations have helped provide ongoing funding for a wellness coordinator.

“It’s a village effort here,” Renner said.